Against the Proudhonian
popery of Père Naphtha
Père Naphtha is a delightful contradiction: a self-identified papist with pretensions to Marxism. Specifically, he belongs to the Maoist/Stalinist persuasion. It’s possible that he, like Roland Boer, thinks his religiosity adds some sort of unexpected “twist” or nuance to his otherwise pedestrian “heartthrob for the welfare of humanity,” to quote Hegel. Recently his tempers have been roused by the controversy over Mark Fisher’s “Vampires’ Castle” article and identity politics on the Left, and by the flurry of responses (some okay, most bad) that issued from it. He has thus seen fit to pen his own reply “On Identitarianism: A Defense of a Strawman.”
Though it’s probably poor form to dismiss an entire article and its argument out of hand, in one sweeping gesture, I feel confident in characterizing Naphtha’s “response” as basically an excuse to bang on about Nietzsche‘s pernicious influence on the Left. Obviously, this has been getting a lot of play lately, with Malcolm Bull‘s book Anti-Nietzsche having come out recently, followed by a long and seemingly interminable debate on Doug Henwood’s wall about the (un)salvageability of Nietzsche, which has since been reprised several times in other contexts. Evidently Père Naphtha had a horse in the race here, though the main knight tilting at the Antichrist was Harrison Fluss, an Hegelian and HM groupie. (Fluss is, for the record, a far more worthy opponent than Naphtha in this debate). For Naphtha, the true problem plaguing the Left is not identity politics, as authors such as Fisher, Dean, and Rectenwald believe, but rather the ominous silhouette lurking behind their haughty denunciation of ressentiment: Friedrich Nietzsche.
If for nothing else, however, we should thank Père Naphtha for proffering yet more proof of Nietzsche’s suspicion that most self-proclaimed socialists are in fact Christians in disguise. As if any more proof was needed given the maudlin, moralizing sentimentality of most leftists today. Naphtha’s brand of anti-Nietzscheanism seems to be lifted from the standard Stalinist sources: Georg Lukács and Domenico Losurdo.
Continuing our narrative: In the comment thread below his article, Naphtha took exception to the harsh rhetoric I slung his way, describing his own position as “an egalitarian argument against elitism.” Nietzsche was anti-egalitarian, to be sure, and anti-moralistic. Most pointedly so in his polemics against those famous anti-semites who were for him exemplars of socialism: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (also by extension, the 1848 Proudhonist Richard Wagner), Bakunin, and Eugen Dühring. As Sunit Singh recently put it:
Nietzsche attacked the evasions of the revolutionaries of 1848 who’d turned into anti-Semites as decadent, in bad faith, mendacious, and desperate to ape the modern. But the socialists, who had turned dogmatic, were equally in bad faith. It is as if Nietzsche were specifically pointing to the Left when identifying “the species of moral masturbators” gesturing like invalid Pharisees filled with “noble indignation.”
But there was someone else who railed against morality and equality in polemicizing against Dühring: Friedrich Engels. As Engels wrote in the eighth chapter of his glorious tirade, Anti-Dühring, after explaining the inanity of claims that posit some kind of ideal “equality” between humans:
[the proletarian] demand [for equality] has arisen as a reaction against the bourgeois demand for equality, drawing more or less correct and more far-reaching demands from this bourgeois demand, and serving as an agitational means in order to stir up the workers against the capitalists with the aid of the capitalists’ own assertions; and in this case it stands or falls with bourgeois equality itself.
This is more or less of a piece with one of Marx’s central points in his “Critique of the Gotha Program” (written 1875, known to Engels but unpublished in Marx’s lifetime). As Marx even stated in the Gothakritik, attacking the Lassalleans’ demand for “equality” and “equal rights,” such demands go no further than “the narrow horizon of bourgeois right.” That’s not to say they aren’t important, but it does state — unequivocally — that they’re not the end goal. Observe: “[E]qual right is still in principle — bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case. In spite of this advance, this equal right is still constantly stigmatized by a bourgeois limitation.”
What I said next to Naphtha echoed Engels: “[T]he real content of the proletarian demand for equality is the demand for the abolition of classes. Any demand for equality which goes beyond that, of necessity passes into absurdity.” Upon his encounter with this citation, Naphtha hurriedly revised his earlier characterization of his own argument. It wasn’t that he was advancing an egalitarian argument per se, but rather concurred that the bourgeois demand for equality was important in the meantime. That is, until the “higher phase of communism” is attained. After all, the emphasis Engels later gave to the passage from “the kingdom of necessity” to “the kingdom of freedom” suggests that Marxism’s ultimate argument is libertarian (in the original sense of this word) rather than egalitarian.
Thus, both Marx and Engels as well as Nietzsche attacked equality as such (they made no distinction between “abstract” versus “concrete” equality) in the name of “freedom” and “becoming,” and indeed unlimited becoming. Marx thus writes the following in the Grundrisse:
[W]hen the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces etc., created through universal exchange? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of so-called nature as well as of humanity’s own nature? The absolute working-out of his creative potentialities, with no presupposition other than the previous historic development, which makes this totality of development, i.e. the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick? Where he does not reproduce himself in one specificity, but produces his totality? Strives not to remain something he has become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?
Similarly, though perhaps not in absolutely identical fashion, Nietzsche stressed “becoming” in the section on “What I Owe the Ancients” in Twilight of the Idols:
Saying yes to life, even in its strangest and harshest problems; the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types — that is what I called Dionysian, that is the bridge I found to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not to escape horror and pity, not to cleanse yourself of a dangerous affect by violent discharge — as Aristotle thought: but rather, over and above all horror and pity, so that you yourself may be the eternal joy in becoming, — the joy that includes even the eternal joy in negating…
None of this is to say that Marx or Engels were advocating the same exact thing as Nietzsche. I would claim, however, that Nietzsche had more in common with Marxism than various other post-utopian forms of socialism, such as the anti-semitic variants offered by Proudhon, Bakunin, and Dühring. Sadly, Nietzsche continues to be relevant precisely because most self-proclaimed socialists are actually much closer to Proudhonism than to Marxism, what with their concern with “poverty,” “equality,” and “justice.” Proudhon had said that he knew “only three masters: Hegel, Adam Smith, and the Bible.” The crypto-Christian content of his “philosophy of poverty” is thus disclosed. He would have done well to replace the Bible with his own native heritage in French revolutionary politics.
Marxism is decidedly not some Christian fable about how “the meek shall inherit the earth”; nor is it concerned with the downtrodden as such. Otherwise, I imagine that Marx and Engels wouldn’t have so despised peasants or the lumpenproletariat. It’s rather unlikely that they would have had much patience for this recent proliferation and ongoing multiplication of potential “revolutionary subjects” or “revolutionary agents” proposed by identity politics. Just a brief word on Naphtha’s invocation of Adorno upholding the particularity of the individual against the putative universality of the collective: here Adorno was concerned with upholding the category of the individual as something stunted under capitalism, which is by no means the apotheosis of the individual. He was correcting the tendency to valorize collective freedom over individual freedom, as if the two were somehow mutually exclusive. In the Manifesto, of course, Marx and Engels had asserted that “the freedom of each is the necessary for the freedom of all.” (Bonus points if you’d like to read Engels’ explanation of how communism would simultaneously entail social and individual ownership of the wealth of society. More bonus points if you read the brief sketch I posted on Adorno and “identitarianism”).
As for the differences: Whereas for Hegel and for Marx history was the seeming guarantor of human freedom, for Nietzsche it had by the end of the nineteenth century become a burden that stood in the way of human freedom. The Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment Anatolii Lunacharskii made this same exact point in 1919 at a pedagogical address attended by Lenin, leaning on both Hegel and Nietzsche. But for Marx, too, history had this cumbersome aspect: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Living labor continues to be pressed into the service of the accumulated dead labor of history; the present is still beholden to the past. “We suffer not only from the living but from the dead,” Marx wrote in the preface to Capital. “Le mort saisit le vif. [The dead hand grips the living.]“
But for Marx and Nietzsche becoming, conceptualized as the negation of the status quo (“communism is the real movement overthrowing the existing state of affairs”), was crucial to the realization of human freedom:
In its mystified form, dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.
Emphasizing this point of the revolutionary method of Hegel’s philosophy, as opposed to its system, Engels wrote a few years later that “[i]n accordance with all the rules of the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything which is real resolves itself into the other proposition: All that exists deserves to perish [quoting Goethe].”
This already gives the lie to the fantasy of “identity” claims, insofar as they take being as their point of departure. It’s all based on who people supposedly “are,” and not what they might yet become. Even the notion of class as a static and fixed “identity,” rather than a shifting historical relation, is misleading for this reason: the proletariat is crucial because it is itself nothing but absolute negation, both of its dialectical opposite in capital and its own class character. The root of the error consists in fixing on class as some kind of identity. In this connection, I’m reminded of the Viennese firebrand and architecture critic Adolf Loos. Though I disagree with his characterization of the Bolsheviks as wanting to make proletarians out of everyone (though this might hold true for some of its Proletkul’t strains), he wasn’t far off — as correctives go — when he declared in 1920: “I am a communist. The difference between myself and a Bolshevik is that I want to turn everyone into an aristocrat whereas he wants to turn everyone into a proletarian.”
The standpoint of the proletariat has nothing to do with wanting to turn the world into a giant factory, making workers of all humanity. Initially, of course, everyone who could work shall, but the amount of necessary labor-time invested in production would gradually diminish until withering away entirely. Hence why the overcoming of capital would simultaneously entail the self-abolition of the proletariat, in the creation of a classless society. Or as Marx and Engels themselves put it in The Holy Family, using their earlier parlance of “private property” instead of capital qua self-valorizing value:
The proletariat, on the contrary, is compelled as proletariat to abolish itself and thereby its opposite, private property, which determines its existence, and which makes it proletariat. It is the negative side of the antithesis, its restlessness within its very self, dissolved and self-dissolving private property.
Anything else, which seeks to uphold a particular form of existing identity against the onslaught of capitalist development, cultural conservation or the preservation of religious traditions and so on, is precisely conservative. The proletariat is radical because it takes as its root the self-transformation of humanity itself (to be radical is to go to the root of things, but for man the root is man), a humanity which everywhere remains an ideal and is nowhere yet an accomplished reality.